While humans have been on a quest to cheat death for millennia, the new business of immortality is just now heating up. With Silicon Valley investing in everything from longevity research to experimental startups, keeping up-to-date—not to mention separating fact from fiction—can be tough. Here are a few of our recommended resources to help you get informed and stay abreast of new developments.
What to read
- For a sweeping historical perspective, start with philosopher Stephen Cave’s 2012 book Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization, which lays out the four narratives humans have long used to cope with fear of death.
- Philosophy professor Paul Edward’s 1992 anthology Immortality offers a selection of philosophical and scientific works that address topics including the soul and the body, reincarnation, and transmigration.
- For a firsthand account of one man’s personal dive into the world of immortality, read The Book of Immortality (2013) by Adam Leith Gollner. Highlights include a visit to David Copperfield’s purported “fountain of youth” and a tour of a cryonics facility.
- The famously skeptical Michael Shermer’s recent work, Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia (2017), addresses everything from radical-life extensionists to people trying to digitally upload their brains.
- If you’re curious about what kinds of life-extension therapies dominated the field nearly 200 years ago (for example: electroshock therapy for the elderly), read doctor Leopold Turck’s 1852 book From Old Age Studied As a Disease, and Ways to Combat It.
- For immortalist perspectives straight from the horse’s mouth, read Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (2005). Also try Robert Ettinger’s The Prospect of Immortality (1962), in which the father of cryonics first proposed freezing the human body as a viable avenue for immortality.
The topic of immortality has inspired centuries of writers whose imaginative books grapple with the ethical and moral consequences of chasing eternal life. Here’s your reading list:
- The Epic of Gilgamesh (21st century BC), an ancient Mesopotamian tale about a king’s journey to find an immortal man and learn the secrets to eternal life.
- “Eos and Tithonus” (8th century BC), a Greek myth that ponders the pain of living in perpetuity.
- Gulliver’s Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift, in which the hero visits an island where people can age, but do not die.
- The Picture of Dorian Grey (1890) by Oscar Wilde, about a man who remains young and beautiful while his portrait ages.
- Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker, the ultimate undead tale.
- Peter Pan (1902) by J.M. Barrie, the bittersweet story of the boy who wouldn’t grow up. (The 2003 film is also great.)
- “The Jameson Satellite” (1931) by Neil R. Jones, a short story that inspired many in the cryonics movement.
- After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (1939) by Aldous Huxley, a satirical novel that follows a Hollywood mogul’s attempts to outwit death.
- Tuck Everlasting (1975) by Natalie Babbit, about a young girl who discovers a spring that bestows eternal youth upon those who drink from it.
- The Harry Potter (1997) series by J.K. Rowling, in which the chief antagonist, Voldemort, goes to great lengths to achieve immortality, and which features the real-life alchemist Nicholas Flamel.
- Eternal Life (2018) by Dara Horn, about a woman who cannot die.
- If you’re interested in recent science involving life extension and longevity, check out Nature, Science, and Cell, and keep up with the latest from the National Institute on Aging here.
- Click here for a full list of articles I read from major publications in preparation for this project.
- Be sure to read Tad Friend’s 2017 New Yorker article on Silicon Valley’s quest for immortality.
What to watch
TED and other talks
- Stephen Cave on the stories we tell ourselves about death
- Author Isabel Allende on living passionately at every age
- Jane Fonda on how to make the most of longer life expectancies
- Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford commencement speech, entitled “How to live before you die.”
The silver screen
- Forever with Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisan
- The Good Place on NBC
- The “San Junipero” episode of Black Mirror
- The Westworld episode that satirizes tech bros’ quest for eternal life
- Russian Doll, which explores death and the multiverse
- Fullmetal Alchemist, a Japanese manga series on the themes of resurrection and immortality
Odds and ends
If you want to get in on the action:
- NIH will be holding its third Geroscience Summit in Maryland this spring to discuss age-related diseases and conditions.
- The 2019 Undoing Aging Conference is happening place this May in Berlin, with speakers running the gamut from Singularity devotees and transhumanists to mainstream aging scientists.
- A few fringier options include Dave Asprey’s Biohacking Conference, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop conference (if you have $$$ to spare), and The Superhuman Summit, which, as a wellness-cum-radical-life-extension symposium, might be the perfect combination of the first two.
- Check out Reddit’s longevity and life extension communities to see what longevity hobbyists are up to (proceed with caution).
- Listen to this The Why Factor podcast episode on immortality, and the This American Life episode on the Chatsworth Scandal, wherein nine cryonics “patients” were found rotting in an underground crypt.
- Download WeCroak, the app that reminds you you’re going to die.
- Follow Tad Friend, the New Yorker writer who wrote the immortality feature we recommended above, and the NIH for updates on aging research. And follow along with me @sangeetaskurtz.